Gudia is not willing to send her husband Puran Kumar to clean the sewer which she calls “a well of death”. But Puran, who works as a sweeper and is a member of the Valmiki community from Aligarh, says he has no other option.
The family of seven, including Puran’s two sons, two daughters, and a 90-year-old mother, survives on around Rs 14,000 per month, and has been living in Delhi for 25 years. Each dive into the sewer earns Puran anywhere around Rs 300 to Rs 500. “I am scared to do this, but what else can I do? This is how I earn some extra money to survive in Delhi…Last month, I fainted while cleaning a sewer in Munirka. But thank god, a fellow saved me.”
Many others in Delhi have not been as lucky; six people died within a week in the national capital in two incidents in sewage pits in March. Four died in Rohini, including three contractual private employees working for MTNL and a rickshaw driver who tried to save them. In another incident in Kondli, two died while repairing a Delhi Jal Board motor after falling into the pit.
This, despite manual scavenging being prohibited under the law, and the Delhi government launching a scheme to deploy cleaning machines to weed out the practice.
According to the 2021-2022 budget of the Delhi Jal Board, the agency managing sewer clean-ups, 200 mini sewer cleaning machines have been deployed in narrow lanes through service contracts. Bhupesh Kumar, Additional Chief Engineer, Delhi Jal Board, said, “The service contract is given to kin of deceased manual scavengers and people belonging to the SC/ST community…we are getting handholding support from the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This scheme was launched in 2019 and is a successful programme. We have made 200 people self-sufficient and brought them into the mainstream…and to do this, the board has not spent a penny.”
Kumar said a machine costs around Rs 35 lakh and a 25 percent subsidy is provided by the central government, and the service contract could lead to a profit of around Rs 30,000-40,000 per month. “We have started rolling out a scheme named Mukhya Mantri Muft Septic Tank Yojna. Under this scheme, we will provide cleaning service of septic tanks in 1,800 unauthorised colonies. In this, we will use automatic machines, which will use pump technology…This will employ 150 people. One person can own two machines, and the same method of service contact will be used. We have got the tender, and in four months, these machines will be on the road.”
But little appears to have changed for hundreds like Puran, who continue to risk their lives for measly amounts; they are hired when MCD workers do not show up for their shifts, and dive without safety gear at great risk.
When the six deaths were reported in March, four from Rohini and two from Kondli, the National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognisance, and issued notices to top officials, including the Delhi chief secretary and Delhi commissioner of police. It has sought a report on action taken against those responsible and relief provided to the next of kin of the deceased.
“Expressing serious concern over the continued incidents of the deaths in sewage-related works in the absence of proper equipment and safety measures, the commission has observed that apparently, due diligence is not being exercised by the authorities concerned despite the directions from the apex court and its interventions.”
There were other mishaps across the nation – the families of two who died while cleaning a sewer in Lucknow have accused private companies of not providing any protective gear. In Rajasthan’s Bikaner, four workers died while cleaning a septic tank in Karni industrial area. On March 10, three sanitation workers died in Mumbai’s Kandivali because of toxic gas.
Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan and a human rights activist, tried to explain why the problem persists. “Ninety-eight percent people involved in manual scavenging are from Dalit community. That’s why the government is not focusing on them,” he said.
“There are many cases which go unreported, and in a nation like India, you can’t expect all cases to get reported. The sad truth about the situation is that there are laws and judgments to deal with this problem, but we are still witnessing around 2,000 deaths of manual scavengers, and still, we are silent.”
Laws such as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, prohibit manual scavenging in India. According to the act, no person, local authority or agency should engage people for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, and any violation could lead to two years of imprisonment or a fine or both.
In a landmark judgment in 2014, the Supreme Court of India ordered states to abolish manual scavenging. “For sewer deaths, entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergencies.”
But the practice continues as the numbers suggest. According to data cited in the Lok Sabha by union minister of social justice and empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, 325 people have died in the last five years in “accidents” while cleaning sewer and septic tanks. Of these, Delhi stood third in the country with 43 deaths after Tamil Nadu (43) and Uttar Pradesh (52). However, the minister said there was no death due to engagement in manual scavenging.
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